Tuesday, May 8, 2012

#125: Day of Wrath

(Carl Th. Dreyer, 1943)

Day of Wrath is a dark movie about characters filled with rage, spite, and crushing guilt. To the casual viewer (if there can be a casual viewer of Day of Wrath), the film might seem like the typical Christian picture, meant to force the viewer to atone for his or her own sins and focused intently on the penitence necessary to walk the path of God. It's exactly the opposite: an angry rejection of religious zeal and timeless indictment of both authority and the way women are treated. However, Day of Wrath is not an intentionally political film. Instead, its success as a film is confirmation that all art is political - that any confrontation of the nature of humanity and the society it created must speak to the structures and mores of its creator's world.

Nothing good happens in Day of Wrath. An innocent woman is burned at the stake, accused of being a witch, while another has been unwillingly taken as an older man's wife so that her mother was able to avoid the same fate. The wife falls in love with her husband's son, a weak and guilt-wracked individual who we realize quickly has no hope of being her savior. Finally, these characters get what's coming to them, whether they deserve it or not.

But despite the austere setting and dark subject matter, Day of Wrath is surprisingly engaging. This is partially because the film's simplistic plotting and tragic structure recall the melodramas of earlier times (especially silent films like Sunrise), but it's mainly because Dreyer's unique visual style and honest depictions of adult themes point towards modern filmmaking. Day of Wrath might look older than it is (and this is not Criterion's best print) but it feels a decade or two younger. That its witch-trial setting pointed towards The Crucible a decade later should be no surprise, and the reason why Dreyer, often overlooked by cineastes and critics, is so beloved by actual directors and cinematographers is clear from this film alone. With two more films in this collection (plus a documentary about Dreyer), I'm looking forward to delving further into his work.

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